Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR and you could win a trip to Paris!
What Is Northern Pass? Northern Pass is a proposal to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada, through northern New Hampshire, south to Concord, and then eastward to Deerfield. The project is a collaboration between Eversource (previously known as Public Service of New Hampshire) and Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the provincial government of Quebec. The utilities say the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project would transport 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Quebec – which derives more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams – to the New England power grid.The ControversyNorthern Pass has proved an incredibly controversial issue in New Hampshire, especially in the North CountryThe project has generated considerable controversy from the beginning. Despite its statewide impacts, many of the projects most dedicated opponents come from the sparsely-populated and heavily forested North Country.Eversource says the new lines would bring jobs and tax revenue to this struggling part of the state. But opponents of the project say it would mean only temporary jobs for residents when it's under construction. They also say it will deface New Hampshire's forestland, hurting tourism and lowering property values. Depending on the location, developers say the project's towers will range from 85 to 135 feet tall.Polls have consistently found the public remains sharply divided on this issue.Some critics have pushed for the entire project to be buried. Politicians ranging from Sen. Maggie Hassan to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have floated this move as having the potential to soften opposition. Eversource maintains this would be too expensive, and would effectively make the project impossible to pursue. The Route: Real Estate Chess Plays Out In The North Country Northern Pass and its opponents have been fighting over control of land along potential routesNorthern Pass has considered a number of routes for the project, but has publicly announced three. The first, unveiled in 2011, faced major backlash from North Country residents and environmental groups. Over the next couple of years, the project and its primary opponent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests played a prolonged chess match over parcels of North Country land. Northern Pass ultimately spent more than $40 million purchasing acres of undeveloped land in the North Country. Meanwhile, the Forest Society undertook an aggressive fundraising campaign and sought a slew of conservation easements to block potential routes.This maneuvering narrowed the options for Northern Pass. One lingering possibility was exercising eminent domain. Northern Pass publicly stated it was not interested in pursuing eminent domain. But in 2012, in response to strong statewide opposition, the Legislature closed the option altogether, outlawing the practice except in cases where a new transmission line was needed to maintain the reliability of the electric system.By the spring of 2013, Northern Pass opponents believed the project was essentially "cornered" into trying to route the power line through a large conservation easement, called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The governor at that time, Democrat Maggie Hassan, said she opposed such a move on the part of Northern Pass.Second Time Around: Northern Pass Announces Alternative RouteIn June of 2013, Northern Pass unveiled its second proposed route. Abandoning its previous strategy (and $40 million in land purchases) altogether, the project proposed building along existing state and local North Country roadways in Clarksville and Stewartstown. In a nod to project opponents, Northern Pass also said it will bury 7.5 miles of line in Stewartstown, Clarksville, and under the Connecticut River. That raised the price tag on the project from $1.2 billion as initially proposed to about $1.4 billion. While opponents said this move was progress, many – including the Forest Society – maintained that Northern Pass should be able to bury all 180 miles of power lines.Final Route: Burial through the White Mountains0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a620000 After years of continued opposition, Northern Pass made its final concession to critics. It downsized the powerline from an initial proposal of 1,200 megawatts to 1,090 to take advantage of a new technology, known as HVDC lite. This move made it more economical to bury portions of the line, and Eversource said it was now willing to bury 52 additional miles of the project. The new route would be alongside state roadways as the project passed through the White Mountain National Forest.While the governor called the change “an important improvement,” she also said “further improvements” to the project should be made. The partial burial did not placate the project’s fiercest opponents, but some speculated that it would help the project clear one significant hurdle: whether it would get approval to use public lands from the top official at the White Mountain National Forest. The move pushed the estimated price tag up again, to $1.6 billion, now for a project that would deliver less power.With its new route in hand, project officials filed to build the project in October of 2015.Before the Site Evaluation CommitteeThe application to state officials was likely the longest and most complicated in the state’s history, and 161 individuals, interest groups, and municipalities asked to be allowed to participate in the process to evaluate the merits of the project.Given the size and complexity of the project, many of the interveners pushed for a longer review than the standard one year that state law dictates. In May of 2016, those groups got their wish, and the decision was pushed back 9 months. The final deadline was set for September of 2017. However, once the proceeding got under way, it was clear that even this delay would not allow time to hear from all of the witnesses called by the various interveners. Early in September of 2017 it was delayed again, with a final decision set for February 2018.DeniedOn February 1st, 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously to deny the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that triggered an appeals process that was taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in late 2018.In May of 2019, the court heard orgal arguments on the appeal.On July 19, 2019, the court issued its ruling. In a unanimous decision, the SEC's rejection of the project was upheld, likely marking the end of Northern Pass as it was proposed.

Beyond Northern Pass: Where New England Will Get Its Power Remains Uncertain

Flickr CC

  Third in a three part series.

Whether or not the Northern Pass transmission line gets the state and federal permits it’s looking for, HydroQuebec is poised to send ever more of its hydro-power south. It’s increasingly clear that New England will need more power soon and with transmission lines are being proposed all around the Northeast, Canadian hydro is likely to play a role.

In just a couple of weeks, companies are scheduled to have a chance to bid for the right to supply electricity to New England in 2017, in something called the Forward Capacity Market. This auction’s job is to make sure the lights will stay on, three years out.

“What it does is really it’s a reliability market,” explains Dan Dolan, President of the New England Power Generators Association, which represents many power plant operators that bid into this auction. “It ensures there’s going to be enough power plants on the system three years from now to meet consumer demand.”

This year, for the first time in the market’s 8 year history, there might not be enough plants signed up to deliver in 2017.

“We’re seeing a transition away from some of the older generating stations, particular the coal and the oil facilities, where they do play an important role on the system but there have been a series of retirements taking place,” says Dolan.

The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Station will switch off at the end of this year, and Brayton Point – New England’s Largest coal plant – has announced it wants to shut down in 2017 (The grid operator, has asked it to stay online because of fears that the retirement could lead to blackouts, but the final decision rests with the plant’s operators)

At the same time, our neighbor to the North has got hydropower to spare, especially in summer. Most people in Quebec heat with electricity, so their grid is built up for really high use on the coldest days.

“There’s a lot of surplus energy in the summer that we can export,” says Hydroquebec spokesman Gary Sutherland.

Electricity prices in Quebec are pretty low, which means exporting boosts HydroQuebec’s profits.  In 2012, exports – mostly to New England and New York – accounted for 15 percent of its sales volume, but 24 percent of its sales revenue.

“Working on those export markets is a really interesting part of our business,” explains Sutherland.

The head of the Northern Pass, PSNH’s Gary Long puts it another way. “They very much want to do business with us, in simple terms it takes transmission lines, and that’s been the difficulty.”

The trick about getting from where the hydro is to the demand in Boston and farther south: is what’s in between. “To get from Canada to New England,” says Long, counting off on his fingers, “New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine.”

Here in New Hampshire, the Northern Pass has hit major opposition because of the impacts associated with the lines.

Credit ISO-NE
In a presentation to the N.H. legislature this fall, ISO New England laid out the challenge ahead, by 2020 capacity shortfalls are expected, even if every project currently proposed for the region is built.

But not every proposal to move power South looks like the Northern Pass. Opponents have plenty of examples of proposed alternatives to point to: one to New York City buried under the Hudson River, another proposed in Vermont would be buried under Lake Champlain, and a third in Maine that would be buried along Maine’s highways.

PSNH has repeatedly said burying the line through New Hampshire would be prohibitively expensive, but critics are confident that if the utility backs down, someone will step up who is willing to bury the line.

“If that’s what it’s going to cost, it’s important that the developers know it’s going to cost that,” says Christophe Courchesne of the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the Northern Pass’ leading critics, “and if some of the developers lose some interest… my suspicion is that there are other developers who can make the spreadsheets work.”

And it’s all about spreadsheets these days.

“We made a decision in the 90s,” says Meredith Hatfield, New Hampshire’s Director of Energy and Planning, referring to the decision to move to a “deregulated” energy market, shifting the risks from bad market decisions by utilities from the rate-payers to investors. The hope of deregulation was that it would drive down costs.

“We were going to join a market and really try a market approach,” says Hatfield, “And if we feel like the market is not working, I think we have an obligation to try and fix it.”

If New Hampshire doesn’t like the projects the market is providing policy makers have to figure out how to change that. The conversation is underway right now about changing the states rules for siting new power plants, and adopting a new, non-binding state energy strategy.

“We really are at an interesting time where people are asking fundamental questions, and that’s a good thing,” says Hatfield, “When we did the last energy plan there really wasn’t this level of public interest in these issues.”

Whatever the conclusions, New Hampshire is going to have to decide how, if at all, it’s going to help the region replace its aging fleet of power plants, with or without Northern Pass and Hydro Quebec.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.